The Psychology of Religious Behavior, Belief and Experience

By Atkinson, Peter | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Psychology of Religious Behavior, Belief and Experience


Atkinson, Peter, Anglican Theological Review


The Psychology of Religious Behavior, Belief and Experience. By Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. xii + 256 pp. $21.99 (paper).

The figure of Sigmund Freud casts a pervasive shadow across the literature and research reviewed in this comprehensive survey of the psychology of religion and religiosity. As Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle ol)serve, "terms such as father projection, identification, super-ego, or Oedipal solution have become part of the language of the human sciences when dealing with religion" (p. 254). Thus, though far from echoing Freud's consignment of religion to neurosis, the authors empiricist aspirations and the reductionist orientation firmly ground this work in the psychology of religion rather than religious psychology. Like most of the researchers and theorists whose work they describe, they are more likely to view the positive, observable aspects of religious behavior as regression in the service of the ego, rather than as the work of grace. Approaching religious experience with a hermeneutic informed by psychoanalytic ideas concerning the "universal features of n ythology and ritual" (p. 255) is, inevitably, an iconoclastic act. however, a variety of readers will find this book to be a helpful guide.

Updating their earlier 1975 work, Beit-Halbmi and Argle evaluate a vast array of recent research and theory, all the while managing to combine scholarly rigor with readability. This work will be invaluable for students or researchers struggling in that crucial early stage of clarification and orientation within a discipline, through which any research idea must pass. Turning to the contents page. I breathed a sigh of relief as the broad contours of this complex field came immediately into sharper focus. Here are both rich bibliographic resources, linking seminal thinkers with recent research and broad theoretical frameworks lucidly supporting cach idea. Not everyone will be comfortable with the relatively unchallenged umpiricist assumptions which inform this work even though the authors acknowledge the "complexity and multivocality which characterize religious phenomena at every level" (p.1) If as they suggest, "any religious belief is a fantasy created to serve the needs of both the creative artist and the audience" (p.15), some might even question whether the objectifying gaze of empirical methodology is the best approach to religious phenomena at all. However, the research referred to is not limited only to those studies which extract and manipulate decontextualized data from survey questionnaires, but also draws from ethnographic and phenomenlolgical research tratitions.

It would not do justice to this book, however, to give the impression that its use will be limited to academic research. It would be a well-read item on the shelf of pastoral caregivers who seek increased awareness of the psychological and sociological processes interwoven with such complexity in the religions experience of individual parishioners and the congregations which nurture them. …

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